By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – A week ago there was little about Saturday’s Manchester derby to whet the appetite but after statement performances from both teams it suddenly has the feel of ‘must watch’ football again.
Manchester City had lost their mojo, their draw at Newcastle United the latest in a series of below-par performances which suggested not only that their title hopes were fading but that Pep Guardiola might need to think about a rebuild of his side.
Manchester United’s draw at home to Aston Villa was a listless display which brought questions, from some quarters, about whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the right man to lead them back to full competitiveness.
But on Tuesday, in a 4-1 dismantling of Burnley at Turf Moor, City looked like City again and above all they looked like a Guardiola team again — passing crisply, moving with purpose, dominating possession and deadly near goal.
On Wednesday, United, inspired by a confident and talented Marcus Rashford and with Scott McTominay powerful in central midfield, deservedly beat a Tottenham Hotspur team managed by their former boss Jose Mourinho.
What makes Saturday’s game at the Etihad fascinating is that while sixth-placed United may trail City by 11 points, the same margin that Liverpool have over Guardiola’s team, Solskjaer’s side have been at their best in the biggest games.
United have beaten Chelsea, Leicester City and Spurs at Old Trafford and they are the only team to have taken points off Liverpool, with a 1-1 draw at home in October.
Mourinho himself noted that United are well equipped for games where they aren’t expected to be on top for long stretches.
“They are not afraid to be with a defensive approach, they are not afraid to be at home, to take their time, to be in control of the emotions of the game. Then lots of young people with lots of energy and good mentality,” he said.
“When they are winning matches, they are comfortable in this situation of low block and a giant dominating in the air and being fast in counter-attack.”
There are plenty of teams who have tried such an approach against City, however, and found that Guardiola’s side are well capable of dismantling their defence and limiting their counters.
The derby then will be a much better indicator of City’s ability to recapture their best form than a half-hearted Burnley provided. But whatever the outcome, Juergen Klopp’s Liverpool will expect to have their lead intact.
The European champions, who crushed Everton 5-2 in Wednesday’s Merseyside derby, travel to Bournemouth on Saturday with Eddie Howe’s side having lost four straight games and picked up just one win since the start of October.
Second-placed Leicester, on a run of seven straight wins, are at Aston Villa on Sunday.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge)